Thursday, May 20, 2010

After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next by Jana Hensel

(One of my goals this summer is to pick up new scholarly books in my field - something I have not done since graduating and enjoying a respite from academia. I can't promise they'll be as exciting as my usual fiction entries but I am enjoying the foray back into history.)

[The last "true" GDR kids] trends amounted to nothing more than a staged performance of individual withdrawal from public life, a refusal to participate, and, to a certain extent, collective boredom. In cliques, everyone looks and feels the same. Internal unity was more important than external individualism. Such was the schizophrenia of everyday life in the GDR. You had to participate without attracting attention, to function within the system without actively collaborating or supporting it. All representatives of the state and other public functionaries were viewed with distrust and distaste. So people tended to keep the private sphere - where they could truly say what they thought - strictly separate from the public one. (160-61)

I saw Jana Hensel's memoir listed in a catalog of recent history books and decided it was worth a read. I think the quote above reflects the ideas she tried to get across in her book: the difficulty of acknowledging a GDR past while inhabiting a post-reunification present.

I haven't picked up much new history lately and this caught my fancy. While I have studied material culture in the two Germanies, discussed the fall of the Wall, and watched post-Wall films like Goodbye Lenin and The Lives of Others, I have not read anything scholarly about post-1990 German reunification (although Timothy Garton Ash's The File broaches this topic).

Hensel's memoir is less scholarly and more frenetic outpourings of thought, but it nonetheless encapsulated core ideas about the difficulties of reunification. I am similar in age to Hensel and like her had not yet completed high school when the Wall fell in 1989. At a crucial stage in personal development introducing an entire new past, present, and future will most assuredly change how a person sees herself. Hensel's goal in writing After the Wall is to point out to Germans the difficulties of assimilating to West German models without having to renounce her communist heritage. Thinking back to the sense of euphoria in the early-90s and my own views of the two Berlins when I saw them in 1995, I found Hensel's frustration with the lack of understanding West Germans showed for her early life intriguing. She neither lauded the GDR and cried over its demise nor did she dismiss it as a an outdated failure. She acknowledged it was merely the world she knew.

Critics of Hensel argue she spends too much time navel-gazing and reiterates the same points ad nauseum. Admittedly, the book could use some polish (And I must briefly ask who placed the pictures in the book. Very often they had a tangential connection to the storyline but no real necessarily relationship. They seemed to have been included merely to break up the text and make is seem less scholarly). But as a history of memory and remembrance I think it is a great tool which could be used successfully in a post-Cold War college classroom. Not to mention the book is a quick and easy read written in a very casual style - a bonus for students who are not invested in dry academic reading. I am trying to figure out a way to incorporate excerpts into my own classes.

Sold as Zonenkinder (Children of the Zone) in Germany, it received tons of attention and praise. The translation includes a short history of the GDR for a non-specialist but also a very useful commentary by the translator. In fact, the notes should have appeared at the beginning as they give the reader useful information for understanding the book (and they take a journalists perspective and give it the needed scholarly twist).

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